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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Guess how much I love you

One of the first books that Sarah was given was a little storybook called Guess How Much I Love You. The book tells the story of Big and Little Nutbrown Hare. Little Nutbrown Hare wants to communicate to his father how much he loves him: he loves him as high as he can reach, hop, jump; he loves him right the way along the lane and over the hill; he loves him all the way to the moon. Each time Little Nutbrown Hare tries to tell his dad how much he loves him, his father responds with an even bigger statement of love: if Little Nutbrown Hare loves his father as high as he can jump, then the father loves the son as high as he can jump; if Little Nutbrown Hare loves his father to the moon, then the father loves him to the moon...and back.

It is a tale of competitive out-loving. A children’s story that touches on the profound impossibility of truly articulating how much we love one another. Love is the stuff of similes and metaphors. We cannot grasp adequately at the right words to describe it. We dance around the deep truths of what it is to really love another because that love is beyond us; it is bigger than us; it cannot be tamed by language. Language is tricky. It slips and slides away from us. We struggle to trust it, struggle to believe in its sincerity. Sometimes even the most heartfelt words tumble and fall to the floor (to coin a phrase from Emma Healey’s remarkable novel, Elizabeth is Missing) because we cannot grasp hold of them. Perhaps this is why Paul uses so many words to try and describe what love is like in 1 Corinthians 13. He uses so many words in the hope that just one might stick, that in our wrestling to understand something of the height, width, depth and length of the unfathomable love of God (Ephesians 3:18) we might manage to cling on to the smallest part of it, because even the smallest part of it would encompass all of us; it would overwhelm and surround us, enfolding us in the boundlessness of the love of our Creator.

When Sarah was born, the intensity of what I felt towards her took me back. It was something entirely new: a fierce, jealous, protective love that gushed out in hot tears. As I held her tiny body, and whispered hello to this new little life over and over again, I was racked with love for her. As the days and weeks pass, I cannot help but look at her and love her. I cannot help simply looking and beholding her smile, listening to her clucks and gurgles, watching her little tightly clenched fingers wrap themselves around mine.

One morning as I read her the story of Little and Nutbrown Hare, I felt that God posed the same challenge to me that the little hare poses to his father: guess how much I love you. Dare I believe that the King of the Universe feel towards me what I feel towards my daughter? That fierce, hot love that bubbles up and over into tears of joy? That ache in my chest that is almost painful? That innate protective instinct that would do anything to keep her harm? Dare I believe that the love of God for me is such that he would give his only son to have me back? He would give the most precious thing in his possession that I might be restored to relationship with him and allowed to call him Father, Abba, daddy?

I could never give Sarah up. The thought of giving her up for for someone else is entirely unthinkable. I cannot allow such a thought to form in my head because it is so ludicrous. And yet God’s love for us is such that this is exactly what he did. For the Father so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. (John 3:16) Let those overly familiar words sink in. Wash away the jadedness of a verse that we quote too often and too unthinkingly. That is how much our heavenly Father loves us - that he would allow us to murder his Son for our salvation. And that is how much the Son loves us: that he would agree to such a plan, that he would willingly walk the way of the cross, that he would be held to the cross not by nails but by love. No one took Jesus’ life from him. He laid it down. (John 10:18) He was not forced to the cross by an angry and abusive Father. He chose it. We are not left to guess what God’s love for us looks like. It looks like Good Friday. (1 John 4:9-10) It looks like a Son who knows that the only way for his lost brothers and sisters to come home is for him to be abandoned by his Dad. A Son who embraces our estrangement from the Father, who is forsaken that we might not be.

I do not claim to understand any of this. I am scratching the surface of something that is too deep and too wide. My words are tumbling to the floor even as I type them. They are too fickle and too insubstantial to hold Him. And yet they are all that I have to communicate something that is too precious to be contained within the bounds of language. And so that is my prayer on this dark Saturday before the glory of Sunday’s sunrise: that we might know the love that passes knowledge, that we might be filled to the measure of all the fullness of our God (Ephesians 3:19), that we might dare to trust in the love of a Father who gave up everything to win us back.

Monday, 7 March 2016

God can get tiny if we’re not careful

I have been wanted to write this blog for a long time. The title is another quote from Boyle's memoir. When recounting tales of life in amongst Los Angeles' Projects he reminds us that God can, all too quickly, become tiny; made in our own small image instead of being allowed to be Himself. 

I think I have been guilty of this in recent weeks. I have made God tiny.

In part, this is due to the massive upheaval of all things since Sarah's arrival. She is beautiful, joyful and I am totally besotted, but she is also exhausting.The first two weeks of her life lulled me into a false sense of security as she mainly slept through them, but now that she is the world's most wide awake newborn, I am struggling to make sense of what motherhood is supposed to look like. Especially motherhood with Jesus. All of the normal ways in which I connect with God - writing, reading scripture, silence, guitar playing, blogging - have been stripped away (mostly by the fact that breastfeeding teaches you the art of onehandedness and most of the above cannot really be done well with only one hand) and I find that my relationship with God feels dry and empty. I ache to spend time with Him in the ways that I am accustomed, trying desperately to squeeze in some space in the fleeting moments of each day (like this one) in which I might determine what I do with my time, but, those elusive moments are usually interrupted, or else never quite recognised as possibilities because I decide that I need to do the washing up instead.   

And then I start to feel resentful. Cross at Sarah because she won't nap and I am tired of ceaseless rocking. Cross with myself for not being able to multi-task. Cross with God because He feels distant. Cross at the fact that I have no idea how to share the love of Jesus with others when my energy is completely spent. I have perfected the art of making God tiny: squeezing him into the cracks and crevices of my day and then wondering why it is that He doesn't seem to fit.

A few days ago, I listened to a sermon by Danielle Strickland in which she talks about much the same thing as Boyle: the miniaturising of God. In putting so much emphasis on our own personal relationship with Jesus, she says that we run the risk of forgetting just how big and wonderful and wild his redemptive purposes are for all of creation. We make much of accepting Jesus into our hearts instead of recognising that, by saying Yes to Him, we are drawn into his heart. We are united with Him (Colossians 3:1) and invited to work alongside Him in changing the world. This is not to make little of the wonder and glory of a personal relationship with the King of the World - that in itself is pretty spectacular - but simply to say that although salvation might start with us it is not intended to remain so: we are saved that we might share the joy of salvation; we are welcomed in that others might also come in to join the party. (1 John 1:4) 

In the past few weeks, I have despaired that my own personal relationship with God seems somewhat of a shambles. Seems being the operative word because, of course, it isn't. God is no smaller, or further away. He has not changed. He is faithful and constant and always working. (John 5:17) He is at work restoring all things. In recent weeks I have lost sight of this big-ness. In the darkness and loneliness of the early hours feeding Sarah, I have lost sight of the hugeness of God's plan. So intent have I become on bemoaning the shift in my relationship with Him, and the failure for Him to fit into my agenda, that I have stopped asking Him what His agenda is. 

I have made him tiny.

This came to a head last week. A friend cancelled on me so I suddenly found myself with a spare hour in which to do my mad cramming-squeezing God routine. I could go on a prayer walk. I could go out for a coffee with my bible. I could hang out with Sarah and listen to some worship music. The possibilities were endless! I determined that it was prime blog-writing time and started to ponder how I was going to communicate this truth of making God tiny. And then, ironically, and somewhat annoyingly, God interrupted my pondering: You're making me tiny right now. You're trying to fit me in to your ever-changing, tightly structured agenda instead of being part of my plan. Instead of asking me what you should do with this time, and how you might join in with my world-changing, you're trying to make me conform to what you want to do. 

Oh dear. 

And so, slightly belligerently, I stopped my plan-making and prayed: well, what do you want me to? 

Of course, it isn't always possible to scrap our plans and commitments. We have jobs, meetings, responsibilities that need our attention and our time management. But I think God's gentle nudge to me, as Strickland's sermon had been, was to say Don't make me tiny. Don't be so intent on creating the times and spaces where you want me to do something that you forget that I am always the one doing, all the time. I am working when you are exhausted and barely able to keep your eyes open as you calm you child; I am working when you don't have time to see a particular person; I am working in the hearts and lives of all around you, and in the whole of the created order. And what's more, if you would only stop and pay attention, you could join in!

And so, this week, I am trying to be alert to the purposes of God. I am trying to do what Jesus did in only doing what the Father is doing - which presumably meant he had to keep asking the Father what he was doing (John 5:19).

I am trying not to make God tiny.